A recently discovered Roman tomb in northern Jordan may look pretty familiar to comic readers. The 2,000-year-old paintings that adorn the walls of the tomb’s main chamber tell a story in five panels, each inscribed with dialog from some of the characters. While there are no superheroes or crime-fighting, several Roman gods feature in the action, and a few people plummet to their deaths from ramparts.
Archaeologists say the five panels depict the founding of the city of Capitolias in the 1st century CE.
The founding of a city
The tomb is one of several archaeological sites from ancient Capitolias unearthed by a November 2016 road construction project in what is now the city of Bayt Ras. The roadwork also revealed several other tombs nearby, as well as an ancient theater and a row of columns. When the tomb was dug into the hillside, Capitolias was part of the Roman Empire but in a region still more heavily influenced by Greek culture.
The version of events painted on three walls of the 52-square-meter funerary chambers probably takes some poetic license with Capitolias’ history. It seems unlikely that the city’s founders literally attended a banquet of the Roman gods, serving refreshments while asking their advice on a good spot to build a city. In the first panel, on a wall to the left of the tomb’s entrance, larger-than-life Roman gods recline on couches while humans offer them food and drink. More likely, the city’s founders would have made offerings at a temple before construction began.
In the next panels, a city begins to emerge from the wilderness. Farmers with oxen gather fruit and tend vineyards in one panel, and Dionysus and other gods help woodcutters chop down trees in another.
To the right of the entrance, the story continues with the construction of a city wall. Laborers lead donkeys and camels with loads of building material to the site, while stonecutters and masons climb the wall and occasionally suffer falls and other mishaps. Architects supervise the whole process (though arguably not very well, given the number of accidents depicted). This panel features scintillating dialog like “I am cutting stone!” and “Alas for me! I am dead!”
And the final panel, the centerpiece of the whole room, depicts someone in the robes of a priest offering a sacrifice to the city’s gods.
None of this is typical subject matter for tomb paintings from the Greek or Roman periods. Most tend to focus on river and marine scenery, or zodiac and other astronomical images, like those that adorn the entrance wall and ceiling. The paintings in the main chamber of the Bayt Ras tomb are unusual and original enough that archaeologists think the ancient builders of the tomb must have had a reason. They speculate that the tomb may be a monument to the city’s founder.
If that idea proves correct, the person presenting an offering to the gods in the final, central panel may be the same person buried in the large basalt sarcophagus found in the tomb. But so far, archaeologists don’t know much about the tomb’s owner. It’s not clear whether the sarcophagus still contained remains, but there’s evidence that the tomb was broken into at some point in the distant past. And the sarcophagus bears no name carved into the stone—just two lion heads. The tomb owner’s name might be carved on the lintel over the tomb’s door, but that hasn’t been excavated yet.
The writing on the wall
The inscriptions—more than 60 of them—are also an unusual find.
“The inscriptions are actually similar to speech bubbles in comic books, because they describe the activities of the characters, who offer explanations of what they are doing,” said archaeologists Jean-Baptiste Yon of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in a statement.
Archaeologists have already translated many of them, and while they probably wouldn’t land the ancient writer a job at DC or Marvel today, they do add context to the images. More importantly, the inscriptions may offer linguists some insight into the development of the Aramaic language. Most of the people in the panels are speaking Aramaic; only the gods speak Greek. But all of the speech and labels are written in ancient Greek letters. That’s a rare combination, and it’s important because Greek writing includes vowels, which mostly wouldn’t have been written down in actual Aramaic text.
A consortium of archaeologists from Jordan’s Ministry of Antiquities is working alongside researchers from CNRS, the French Institute for the Near East, and two Italian institutes, the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro and the Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale. They spent portions of 2017 and 2018 documenting and conserving the tomb and its painted walls. That work included a 3D laser scan of the tomb along with painstaking cleaning, sketching, and photography. Research is ongoing, and archaeologists will present their findings at a conference in Florence, Italy, in January 2019.